Not So Fast, EchoStar: Cable MSOs Look For Other "Sling" Options

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about a new trend in media convergence, where streaming media technologies are merging into traditional living room media devices. From satellite boxes to DVD players to TVs, the word of the day is integration, extending the land grab into online video and, often, blurring the lines between competitors in the traditional media space and the back-end equipment designed to support expansion.

Part of this whole discussion centers on the "TV Everywhere" concept, which means about as many different things to the various parts of the video ecosystem as does the term "HTTP Streaming" to those involved with streaming media. Between TV Everywhere and the A/153 mobile television specification I wrote about two weeks ago, the potential to disrupt "traditional" streaming media equilibrium appears quite high as we enter 2010.

To get a sense of the blur occurring between established media segments as they battle for new media supremacy, one only need look back to last week's SCTE Cable-Tech Expo Show in Denver. At the same show where Ankeena announced its partnership with Juniper, EchoStar announced what they suggest is "cable's answer" for TV Everywhere: Sling Media's place-shifting technology in a cable-ready set-top box.

EchoStar thinks cable providers might just be able to get the best solution for place shifting by crossing over from traditional set-top boxes to ones made by EchoStar, who previously only made satellite receiver boxes.

Instead of spending dollars and time creating a cable-exclusive place-shifting technology, EchoStar's reasoning goes, cable providers should use a technology that's already proven.

"You don't want to stumble out of the gate," said EchoStar's Michael Haskey. "Give them [the consumer] the whole experience. TV Everywhere is not about getting some of my TV channels or some content on some of my devices some of the time."

Cable's Response?
Word on the street is that cable MSOs may not want that answer, especially given the background of EchoStar, which was part of highly competitive Dish Networks before being spun off in 2008, shortly after the Sling Media acquistion.

How competitive? The history goes back at least 13 years, during which time EchoStar was defending itself against cable providers.

"EchoStar's DISH Network has been under direct attack by the cable giant," a 1996 Business Wire release noted, "for the alleged shortcomings of satellite dish technology through print, radio and television spots."

EchoStar took the fight to the consumer and was successful in enticing away subscribers from some cable providers—and also gathering a number of subscribers who fell outside of cable providers' physical plant boundaries. Old rivalries die hard, so the move to offer EchoStar-based technologies may be rebuffed, opening up opportunities for other place-shifting technologies.

The CABA NewsBrief, from the Continental Automated Buildings Assocation, is one of the more eclectic e-newsletters I receive on a daily basis, but a recent edition had details about at least one other "video sling" application is in the works.

"Arris Group Inc. is developing a place-shifting application for a multimedia cable gateway that would let users send live and on-demand video to PCs, smartphones, and other IP video displays via broadband connections," the newsletter states, referencing a report by Light Reading.

What's most interesting is that Arris acknowledges it is competing directly with SlingLoaded boxes, but sees that as a benefit.

Arris expects its Arris Moxi MG5000 Series DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) 3.0 Multimedia Gateway, a long name for an infrastructure box that most users will never see, touts one of its primary features as being the gateway's ability to "account for any out-of-home distribution restraints specified by MSOs and programmers"—simply put, to keep from occurring the potential disruption that a true place-shifting device like a Silng Media box might allow.

Cable's Gatekeeper?
When Paul Sagan spoke at this year's Streaming Media East, he harkened back to the early days of cable, in which there were a multitude of small cable providers and almost as many cable technology providers. From its Wild-West start, Sagan noted, the cable industry's maturation led to a need for interoperability.

Cable Television Laboratories, Inc., better known as CableLabs, was the industry's solution, as it certifies numerous cable products for interoperability.

When cable started going online, offering cable modems to compete with DSL services from the telecoms, CableLabs certified cable modems to meet the DOCSIS 1.0 specification.

Even now, as the battle for online middle- and last-mile supremacy wages in a three-way battle between the telecoms and cable providers, a CableLabs certification is often critical for a product to be included in a widespread cable MSO rollout.

The industry is now at DOCSIS 3.0, and CableLabs has issued a request for information (RFI) surrounding the concept of TV Everywhere. In this case, the intent from a cable service provider's perspective is to guarantee a common technical approach for consumers to offering secure online subscription video services to cable subscribers.

In other words, in yet another example of carving up the online video world, any U.S.-based over-the-top or catch-up service offered by the existing cable companies will likely need to meet a CableLabs-certified specification, which will in turn govern the back-end functionality for all cable MSOs.

CableLabs has set a deadline for responses to the RFI of December 11, just over one month away.

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